Winds of Change

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Thirty-nine years of hard work in the auto glass industry had given me Popeye forearms, or so my co-workers said. The many hours of pulling a cold knife, using caulking guns, hefting windshields, and finally working with an Extractor had made me strong. The years and years of constantly dealing with the problems and difficulties of auto glass installation had given me a keen mind. I was as good an installer as anybody could find, and it made me proud. I was fulfilled in my work.

Sure, I had noticed some decrease in arm strength in recent years; not much though. Besides, I knew that was to be expected as we age. And at 57, I was older than any other auto glass installer I had ever met. But I loved my job, and I figured as long as I could still do it well, I would continue indefinitely.

One spring day in 2010 I had loaded up a rear window for an older Mercedes Benz in my van and drove over to Madelia, a small town some thirty miles southwest of Mankato. I quickly found the house, and there sat the Mercedes out on the street in front. In just a few moments it became clear to me that the window I had loaded in the back of my van was not going to fit; it was meant for a different model. That meant it was necessary for me to go up to the door and try to make contact with the customer and let them know we’d order the correct one and return as soon as we got it.

I walked up to the door and rang the doorbell … nobody came. I knocked, hard … still nobody. Nobody was home; they were probably at work. I headed back to my van to get my work order and find the phone number to give them a call. As I stepped off the steps, I felt my leg somehow give way, and down I fell to the ground. I thought, “What the…? How did that happen?”

I tried to stand up, but my body would not cooperate. It was like I was paralyzed, except I could still move. I was getting scared. I tried rolling around onto my side, which worked, but I still was unable to get up. Finally, I think it was by force of will, I managed to get to my feet, though my legs were in agony. I knew something was terribly wrong. I called back to the shop and explained to them what had happened, and told them I had to go and see my chiropractor. You see, this was not the first time I had problems with my back, and that seemed to be what the problem was. I called the chiropractor’s office and got an appointment for that same afternoon.

Dr. Kuch gave me the familiar treatment he had often given me, and I felt better. But he knows what he’s doing, and he told me to let them know at the office that I wouldn’t be back at work for a few days. I made a few more appointment for the rest of the week, and in a couple days it was clear that the same-old same-old wasn’t going to do the trick this time. Dr. Kuch told me I had a disc in my lower back that was bulging, but he said he had a treatment table that he could put me on and do a series of treatments, and it would most likely fix it over a period of time. I told him if he could fix it without surgery, I was all for it. So we proceeded.

I went back to work in a week or so, in pain, and continued with chiropractic treatments every other day for several weeks. Gradually my back improved, and the shooting pains down my legs got better. At work they made accommodations for my condition, and I was gradually able to get back somewhere in the neighborhood of “my old self”. Work was still a painful thing, but I could function, as long as I had the opportunity to sit down and occasionally lay down when I got really sore.

One of my co-workers, a man I had worked closely with for many years, talked with me often about our health and our jobs. He had had heart problems and a cancer scare, as well as hernia surgery, and we were both aware that our days as auto glass installers were numbered. But I thought he would be the one to retire first. But in the winter of 2013 the boss informed me he was interested in hiring a younger installer from another local glass company to help us two old geezers with the work. He would keep me in the shop to do the work in there, and give my van to the new guy. I figured that would be all right. It would cut down on my workload some, and hopefully give my back more time to heal.

I found that it wasn’t quite that simple. The pain continued. I could no longer climb big trucks to work on them. Even climbing a ladder became a difficult proposition. I had to be increasingly careful how I handled my tools and the glass so I wouldn’t put my back out. It wasn’t long before everything I did on the job was painful. I was now sixty-one years old, and I just wanted to hold on for a few more years until I was old enough to receive my full social security payment when I retired. That would be five more years, at age sixty-six.

One day in early October, 2014, I came to work early, as I usually did. I was surprised to see the boss drive into the parking lot a minute or so after I did. I unlocked the door, and he followed me in. He asked me to come into his office. He said it was clear that I had come to the end of the line. He said he’d let me work until October 31, and then I’d be done. He’d give me severance pay, and wouldn’t fight it if I want to file for unemployment. I took the rest of the day off and went home to tell my wife.

I signed up for unemployment; I took their classes on looking for a job. I searched for work online, and I pounded the pavement. The want ads were a frequent companion. I applied to auto glass companies, but no go there. Who wants a 61-year-old installer with a bad back and legs and pain in all his joints? I applied for numerous other jobs; jobs driving a delivery van, jobs delivering mail for the US Post Office, jobs driving for a courier service, as well as retail jobs and other things. I had several interviews, a couple of which went so well I really expected to get a call saying they wanted me to come and work for them.

It finally started to sink in. For most jobs, I was too old. The employers wouldn’t say it, because they didn’t want to get sued for age discrimination. But they had younger people applying, and when they weighed it all out, a young, healthy, if inexperienced, worker was more desirable than an old, broken-down (though mature and reliable) fat man.

My unemployment ran out in June of 2014. I had IRA money I could tap into, so I did, every two or three months, but I knew that wouldn’t last forever. We went to the Social Security office three times, checking on how much money I would get, not signing up the first two times but going home and hoping we could hold on a little longer. Finally we knew it had to be done. I hadn’t reached my full retirement age; I still haven’t. But the amount I would get every month reached a point that we could live with, and my IRA money was getting so low that we knew it was time. So now I’ve been on Social Security for three months; it’s nice to have that guaranteed income every month.

I’m still looking for work. But now I would be happy with some part-time job that will give me a few hundred dollars a month to supplement my Social Security. When you get old, for some reason they still keep sending you bills in the mail, and they don’t like it if you don’t pay them.

One of the hardest things about this time for me has been that nagging feeling that you’re not wanted or needed any more. Even with all your experience, not just in your job but in life itself, they won’t give you a job. Maybe it’s easier if you can go out the way you want to. But in my case I was forced out before I wanted to retire, and that has been hard.

It has now been more than two years since I walked out of that shop for the last time. Some things do get easier. Most of the pain I had those last few years of working is gone. I still have some in my lower back at times, and I have to be careful. But it’s not like it was. And the pain in my shoulders, elbows, and wrists is pretty much nonexistent now. And I’m settling in. Where I used to get up at 5:15 AM every workday, I now routinely sleep until 7:30, sometimes later. My mind is no longer filled with work and technology; I’m now free to read and do Bible study whenever I feel like it. I am available to do things with my wife; in fact I rarely do anything without her any more. And it has freed me up to enjoy my grandchildren, and that may be the best thing of all.

I still have things here around the house that need to be done, and it’s getting hard to do some of those things because of money, and also because of my physical health. But I still hope to be able to do most of those things, and as my body continues to heal from my old job, I will be able to concentrate on improving the things in the house that need work.

I think I’m getting better … but I’m still getting older. But that’s life.

Snowstorm Memory from 1961-62

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This is a little story of one of my childhood experiences that I wrote out to be published in an online newsletter that has gone out of existence. So I figured this is as good a place to publish it as any…

Most people “of a certain age” in southern Minnesota can remember what is often called “the St. Patrick’s Day Blizzard of 1965.” Indeed, the great snows from that late-winter storm were responsible for one of the greatest floods in Minnesota history. There are many stories out there concerning that storm; but I have in mind a lesser storm a few years earlier, but one which is strong in my own memory.
My family moved from Jackson to a rented farmhouse on a farm six miles south and one mile west of Redwood Falls back in the summer of 1961. Besides Mom and Dad, there were five brothers enjoying the adventure of country living out there. We only lived there one year before moving into Redwood. I was in third grade that fall, and my brothers and I rode the school bus to and from town every day; that is, my older brother who must have been a freshman that year, and my next-younger brother who was in second grade. Off-hand, I’m not sure if my third brother was starting school yet, and I know my baby brother was still too small to go to school.
I don’t recall if the storm came in December, or January. It does seem to me that it was around Christmas. We boys had ridden the bus to school in the morning, and the snow began to fall and continued all day. After school we climbed on the bus again and watched the other kids getting off the bus as we headed south on Highway 71. We got six miles out and the bus turned right off the highway onto our gravel road… and suddenly became stuck.Now I don’t remember how much snow there was. I know it wasn’t a foot or more, and I don’t think it was four or five inches either. I suspect it was probably eight inches or so; a pretty fair snowstorm. It was enough to stop the bus anyway.
The bus driver got out and “took a look”, then called the “big boys” in the back of the bus to come out and try and push the bus. (This was back before they ever thought of liability issues and stuff like that.) Well, there was no way we were going forward, but they did get us backed out onto the highway again. From there the driver took the rest of the kids home, those he could get home anyway. The rest of us, my brothers and I and three or four other kids from other farms down on our gravel road, he left at a farm house there next to the highway. This would have been a half mile or so north of the New Avon Methodist Church.
The idea was, this nice older couple would feed us all and put us up for the night, if necessary, and hopefully in the morning conditions would have improved enough for us to get home. Now my memory doesn’t include the idea of getting up and going to school again, so it must have been on a Friday, or possibly the last day before Christmas vacation.
Well, I think I remember having supper there, and then listening to the radio. I don’t think they had a TV. I remember a couple girls standing up in front of the radio, listening intently, and I asked them what they were doing. They said they were listening for them to announce our names. Announce our names? That didn’t make any sense to me, so I asked them again. “We’re listening for them to announce our names on the radio, and let people know we’re stranded out here.” Ohhhhh, now I understand. The bus driver had been in contact with the school, and someone had called KLGR and told them of our plight.
Well, sure enough, in a little while there came a knock at the door, and there was my dad. I thought that if the bus couldn’t get through the snow, surely my parents old Oldsmobile wasn’t going to make it either. But Dad insisted, and he bundled us kids into the car, including the neighbor kids as well, and we headed down the road. I believe he got all of us home that evening, even the neighbor kids. I think the bus driver just didn’t get lined up on the gravel road the right way in all that snow, and probably ran a wheel off the roadway and got stuck, because Dad didn’t seem to have any trouble driving through it.
There were bigger snowstorms back in the 60s, but there are a few farm kids south of Redwood who still remember this one snowstorm when the bus didn’t make it through.

Lights in the Darkness

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In the late spring of 1961, my dad got a new job in Redwood Falls, Minnesota. So just days before the end of the school year, Mom and Dad loaded up their earthly goods, and my four brothers and me, and we all trekked up Highway 71 from Jackson, MN to a farm place about seven miles south of Redwood. I was born in 1953, so I must have been eight at that time. I was the second of the boys; Paul was a bit more than five years older, Kevin a year and a half younger, and Mike and Brian were the little kids, with Brian having just been born in 1959. It was the first time I had ever ridden along Highway 71, but that road would become one of the strongest threads weaving in and out through my life.

Many of our relatives were still in Jackson; three of my four grandparents were still living, along with many aunts, uncles, and cousins were all living in or around Jackson. It was about an hour drive from Redwood, and so we found ourselves cruising up and down Highway 71 frequently. Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, 4th of July; for years we drove down to Jackson to spend holidays with relatives. Even when it wasn’t a holiday season, Mom and Dad would often tell us boys, “We’re going down to Jackson tomorrow to visit Grandma and Grandpa.” …and off we’d go!

The first year or so the car was an Oldsmobile, 1956 or so. I seem to remember being at a mechanic’s shop at Sanborn Corners one night with that Olds up in the air on a hoist. I don’t remember what was wrong with it, but it must have been something pretty nasty that it needed to be dealt with right away, at night, on the road home. At any rate, it wasn’t long before that car was gone, and in its place was a blue 1959 Chevy Biscayne 4-door sedan.

1959-belair-2

At eight years old, I thought it was kind of an ugly car, with those humongous horizontal tail fins, the wrap-around windshield and that bubble-top roofline. But there was no denying the car was BIG! We sat four of us boys across the back seat, with Mom and Dad and the youngest in the front. And I think there would have still been enough room for two or three more back in the trunk!

I’ll bet we rode in that car for seven or eight years; then our parents traded it in for a 1966 Rambler Classic. And that was a nice car, too, but it wasn’t quite as big. After that came a 1970 Chevy Impala, but by that time I had gone off to make my own way in the world, and wouldn’t be riding with Mom and Dad very much any more. Those special childhood days had come to an end for me.

In those halcyon days of the sixties, Mom and Dad were in their later 30s and early 40s, so when we went down to Jackson it didn’t bother them to stay well into the evening before starting up Highway 71 towards home. Night-blindness was still years away for them. There were numerous times, after playing hard with my brothers and apparently dozing off in exhaustion, I was awakened to the greenish glow of the fluorescent light in the kitchen, Mom telling me to get in the car so we could go home. It didn’t matter where we were; it seems everybody had those same fluorescent lights in their kitchens.

So the family would all pile into the car and head off into the darkness. Sometimes the moon would be out, sometimes not. It seems I was nearly always sitting on the right side of the back seat, so I could see out very well. On the way home that meant I was looking out on the countryside to the east side of the highway. I would ride along with my face turned to the window, noticing all the lights that located every farm. Every farmplace at that time had a large yard light so the farmer and his family could see when they left the house, and for any visitors who might stop by. Driving along the highway at night, I found those lights strangely comforting. They were signs of civilization in the darkness.

As you travel north along Hwy. 71, between the little towns of Jeffers and Sanborn the land rises to a divide, a watershed, and when you come over this highest ridge, suddenly you can see for miles! It’s fun in the daytime, but at night it’s spectacular! You can see the farmyard lights for miles and miles, but more than that, you can see the lights of the towns off in the distance. As I rode along with my face turned to the east, I could see the lights of Springfield, and farther to the east is Sleepy Eye, and way off on the horizon I could see the glow of the small city of New Ulm. It only lasted a few minutes, probably five or six, but what a time that was!

Of course, back then there was no such thing as a cell phone that I could have taken pictures, and in that darkness one would have needed a far more expensive camera than anything we could have afforded. But I am amazed that nobody in recent years has seen fit to take pictures of the countryside at night like that. Then again, maybe it never impressed anybody but me … and my mom! Because that was a special time, a special thing that I shared with Mom. She saw the lights, too, since she was on that side of the car and could gaze out the window with me because she didn’t have to drive, and my little brother was most likely sleeping next to her and didn’t need any attention. I remember asking her which town was where, and she would tell me. Looking back, was she right about the towns? I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Mom and I were looking at the lights together.

In a few minutes the city lights had disappeared over the horizon and behind the hills and the groves of trees, and all I saw were the single farm lights again. But that was a special time. The car was humming along, ‘CCO was on the radio, probably two or three of my brothers were sleeping, Mom and Dad were still young, and all was right with the world.